Head Case: Another Example Of Heart Rate Based Training

People who train either for health or athletic excellence occasionally, for want of a better word, experience doubts about their training.

The two categories of people most vulnerable to these doubts are absolute newbies and serious high output athletes.  The doubts run something like this: ‘boy, I sure don’t feel very good today, so my workout is not going to be very good and if I try very hard it will make me get sick.’ Another version: ‘did my poor sleep last night mean I am getting into an over-training cycle or was it that extra glass of wine with dinner and I just need to buck up and get to work.’ Or, the newbie, ‘I hate to train, know it is good for me, but is this the right time? Should I wait till tomorrow when I am not so, fill in the blank, tired, stressed, distracted?’

Almost everyone has had the day where they felt badly at the start of their workout and wound up having a great workout. Happens.

But the doubts can be real and can be important and knowing which is just being a head case and which needs attention is not always easy. Even when you have been at it for years mistakes are made and these can lead to injuries, burn out, under performance, disappointment and pure and simple poor results.

For those who are not newbies or are not high performance athletes the doubts are less stressful; you just put your head down and do your best and that is better than nothing…and there you are.

OK, now how can Heart Rate Based Training (HRBT) help when the doubts hit? Let me illustrate with an example. There are hundreds of ways but here is a recent case.

She is a tall early 60’s natural athlete. Long legged, formerly very fast and, in light of her memory of herself, with high expectations of new achievement. Recent back surgery; and an adult history of failing to maintain training due to re-injury of one kind or another. Now she has one important liability as an adult returning to training: she used to be fit, strong, fast and coordinated. It is a terrible curse if you bring the memory of youthful excellence to bear on adult athleticism after being away from fitness for a prolonged period of time. The memories and the expectation they create lead to a sense of either failure or premature elation and then injury and subsequent failure from relative over-training. And the back surgery! Boy that really gets the head talking. Every ouch, spasm, and sore muscle becomes another imagined trip to the OR and then months of rehab.

When she started back her resting pulse was in the 90’s and her rotational and flex/extend capacity was minimal. At the time we are talking about her resting pulse was back in the low 60’s and she could maintain core stability even against “The Hill.” Now “The Hill” is my preferred testing metric: 100 yards of a 27% grade. I had a civil engineering firm shoot the hill so I could know exactly the work product- the wattage- for each athlete for any given distance and time on “The Hill.” By the way you need such metrics for your own health and athletic training. You must have clear quantifiable pieces of work, of various types and complexity to periodically test your training. And it should not be the mile because you are a miler or the bench press because you are a bodybuilder, or your recovery heart rate if are in cardiac rehab. The testing metric needs to look at some broader measures of fitness and health. OK, this is an aside but will help you see why her heart rate profile (HRP) can be so carefully relied on to assess her, or my or your, training. By the way 27% is very steep if that number doesn’t mean anything to you.

Now on “The Hill” she can attack it so briskly that her heart rate goes straight up; looks like a missile, from resting to peak in a few seconds. How steep the take off is usually a good measure of her effort. Her recovery on “The Hill” is pretty good and has no overshoot, no shoulders, no hangs, no tails. The rate of recovery decays as she gets further into her workouts, this is expected. Now on the day in question, after her warm up, she had a great attack on the first hill interval but something unexpected happened, I’ve seen this before but not in her, her recovery pulse came down like just like a staircase. The riser of the staircase was 5 beats and the step was only about 3-5 seconds: down 5 beats, stay 3-5 seconds, and so on. It looked like a staircase. She said she felt fine. Attacked again with good output but slow recovery. We stopped. Detailed questioning let to ‘well I have been feeling a little queasy off and on for a day to two, no big deal, BM’s fine.’ We did some tests; sure enough she had a mild viral gut infection. No big deal, self limited, but had we pushed on, due to the inflammation that accompanies many illnesses, she would have been susceptible to injury, remember her back, or just discouragement because she/we would not have understood the problem and she might have started down the ‘I’m a failure, just an old lady fighting back against impossible odds’ interior monologue. Not good. In the course of a life this little bit of information can add up and make the difference between long term success and repeated short term failure.

Now this is one, simple example of the value of HRBT. You have to build up detailed familiarity of your heart response to exercise, rest, sleep and so on. What the heart rate looks like at different times of the day, different temperatures and altitudes. The day after alcohol, after cake, candy, roast beef, cold cuts, smog days and so on. Once you begin to become familiar with your heart rate response to known work products you can shape and craft your workouts to maximize almost any training goal. You can even prevent yourself from becoming a ‘Head Case.’

Smile and God Speed,

Dr. Mike

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